The University of Kentucky will honor a desegregation pioneer who also happens to be one of its all-time great track athletes this weekend with the renaming of its annual opening indoor meet as the “Jim Green Invitational.”
Green, a three-time NCAA champion and the first black student-athlete to graduate from UK, ran for Kentucky from 1968 to 1971 and was among the first black student-athletes in the Southeastern Conference during the difficult times of a segregated South.
“It’s exciting,” the 70-year-old Louisville resident said of the honor. “And the reason why it’s so exciting to me right now is because my family is going to be there. This is one of the greatest things to have happen to me to have my family be there with me and my friends and my teammates and my coach.”
Green became a track sensation as a high-schooler despite being a team of one for Eminence High School and having to train on a railroad track bed. Coach Press Whelan wooed Green away from UK football and basketball and a hundred other schools wanting him to run track, according to earlier published reports.
“Without Coach Whelan none of this would be in fruition,” Green said. “He was the guy who came down to my home town of Eminence and recruited a little, skinny black guy to come to UK when everybody else was afraid to have black athletes.”
Kentucky’s new track coach, Lonnie Greene, spoke to Green a number of times over the months since he was hired and one day called the track legend with the idea for the honor.
“Mr. Green is one of the all-time great Wildcats, and so we’re so proud to have this opportunity to distinguish Mr. Green starting this year,” Greene said in a statement. “What a phenomenal occasion it will be to send our young athletes out to compete at a meet bearing such a prestigious namesake. Mr. Green blazed a courageous path of opportunity for so many who followed him, including our current team. We look forward to putting on a great event befitting such a brave hero of sport at our university.”
A hamstring injury the summer of the 1968 Olympics kept Green from being able to compete for the United States at the Mexico City Games, but Green went on to earn All-America honors six times and won eight Southeastern Conference individual events, including the indoor 60-yard dash (1968, 1971), outdoor 100-yard dash (1968, 1970, 1971), and outdoor 220-yard dash (1968, 1970, 1971). At the NCAAs, he won the indoor 60-yard dash in 1968 and the 100-yard dash in both 1968 and 1971. Three of his times remain in the top 10 in UK’s record books.
“It wasn’t easy,” Green said. “Whelan told me, ‘It’s not going to be easy.’ You’re going to go through some trials and tribulations. You’re going to be called a lot of names. People ain’t going to like you. People are going to tell you to ‘go home, you don’t belong here,’ but we just had the will to win and we stayed there.”
Green was the first black athlete to serve as co-captain on the UK track team and was a 2007 inductee into the University of Kentucky Athletics Hall of Fame, one of six hall of fames bearing his achievements, including the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Mason-Dixon Games Hall of Fame.
“He was Kentucky track and field,” said former teammate and later UK track coach Don Weber in a 2005 Herald-Leader interview. “I came in after his freshman year, and he’d won the NCAA championship as a freshman, so he was on the map as soon as he got here, at a national level. He gave us kind of credibility while we were building a pretty good track and field team.”
Asked ahead of his 2005 Mason-Dixon Games Hall of Fame induction what drove him to be great, Green answered simply.
“The will to win,” he said. “And the will not to lose.”
When UK honored the school’s first black football players with a statue outside Kroger Field in 2016, dozens signed a letter to the editor of the Herald-Leader calling for similar recognition for Green, who was a contemporary and classmate of Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.
Green “is equally deserving of recognition as an athlete whose courage and excellence helped break UK’s and the Southeastern Conference’s color barrier,” wrote Margie Wilson of Lexington in a letter signed by 72 others. “As a trailblazer, Green endured hostile experiences in competitions across the Deep South, but as (earlier letter writer and one of Green’s UK teammates Raymond) Sabbatine stated, Green ‘stood tall, deflected the insults, and collected the winning medals.’”
At the Mason-Dixon event in 2005, Green explained why he chose UK.
There was the chance to run track, he said. “and at the same time, open up the doors for other kids that may have wanted to go to the University of Kentucky but always said (it) was a big, white, racist institution. We kind of felt like, if we can make some headway and gains and open doors for other folks, why not take that challenge?”
Nineteen small and large colleges, including Ohio State, Indiana and Eastern Kentucky are scheduled to compete in the Jim Green Invitational, which begins Friday at UK’s Nutter Field House.
Kentucky won nine events in its first meet under Lonnie Greene at the Hoosier Open in December. UK’s Marie-Josée Ebwea-Bile Excel earned national track athlete of the week honors for her national season’s best triple jump of 13.78 meters there.
Jim Green Invitational
What: First home indoor meet of season for UK track and field featuring 19 teams
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: Nutter Field House